Despite being born and raised in a Maronite Catholic family, Charbel had fallen away from his faith by the time he was nine years old.
He attended Belmore Boys’ High School which, as well as being an epicentre for juvenile crime and ethnic gangs, had a high percentage of Muslim students. He quickly acquired many Muslim friends and was exposed to their faith and way of life.
“They take their religion seriously and it was attractive to me. It was impressive that they encourage each other in the faith. I wanted to be part of that,” Charbel told The Catholic Weekly.
During Lent 1999 a Sheik from Jordan visited the school and Charbel went along with his friends to hear him speak.
It was over lunch at Lakemba Mosque following the Sheik’s talk that Charbel really felt his lukewarm Christianity being tested.
The Sheik began to quiz Charbel about Catholicism, asking him a series of questions that he simply couldn’t answer. “I was 18 and I didn’t know how to answer,” he said.
“Why aren’t you eating meat?” he recalls the Sheik asking. “That’s not fasting. In Islam we fast from sunrise to sunset. So which fast is better: the Muslim fast or Christian fast? Why are you calling God ‘father’? You have an earthly father so why are you placing human attributes on God? You are insulting God by degrading him’.
Other questions came in rapid succession: ‘Is Jesus talking to himself in the Our Father since Christians believe Jesus is divine? Is he God or the Son of God? What is the Holy Spirit? You believe in three gods—Father, Son and Holy Spirit? You Christians are confused!”
“He could see I had no answers so he said, ‘Close your eyes and say in Arabic there is only one God and his prophet Mohammed.’ That was the Shahada Prayer.”
To convert to Islam a person must recite the Shahada Prayer three times in front of witnesses.
“I recited it three times in Arabic. I opened up my eyes and he said, ‘Welcome brother’.”
Charbel’s mother slapped him when he arrived home and told her he’d just become Muslim. She demanded he go straight to the local church to pray. He went.
Charbel Raish chats with Catholic Weekly journalist Catherine Sheehan at Parousia Media’s Dural office. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli
“Jesus do you want me to be a Muslim or a Christian? Whatever you show me now … I will do,” Charbel prayed before the tabernacle at St Michael’s Church in Belfield. But all he got was silence.
Then he noticed a frail and elderly woman lighting a candle in the church and he thought to himself that she must be a good person and would most likely go to heaven.
“Hang on, according to Islam only Muslims go to heaven … That lady is going to hell according to Islam. That can’t be right,” he remembers thinking to himself.
It was then that he looked back at the tabernacle and saw what he describes as a vision of the Shroud of Turin.
“I can still see the image today. The face of Jesus appeared on the tabernacle. I thought I was seeing things. I looked away, looked back at the tabernacle. It was still there. I later discovered it was an image of the Shroud of Turin.”
He also heard a voice within himself speak. “Charbel, are you going to give up all that I’ve done for you?” the voice asked. “There was my answer. I knew that voice to be Jesus. I knew he was talking about my Catholic faith,” he told The Catholic Weekly.
“I was asked a direct question by Jesus and I needed to respond to him. I said, ‘No, Lord. I’m not going to give you up’. At that moment a huge weight came off my shoulders. ‘I’m going to remain Catholic but now I need to know why’,” he remembers thinking.
Charbel set out to learn about his faith. Despite almost failing HSC he went on to acquire a Masters in Theology and spent time in the seminary before discerning his vocation was marriage. He married his wife Christine in 2006; they are now expecting baby number seven.
After several years of studying the Catholic faith Charbel founded Parousia Media to evangelise through books, CDs, DVDs and by bringing international guest speakers to Australia. To date over 200,000 people have been reached by Parousia Media and over a quarter of a million resources have been distributed.
“I just knew I wanted to spread the good news, the gospel. I know this is God’s work because [I feel] I’m just a high school drop-out. I have a lot of bad history so I know God is doing this one hundred per cent.”